Fragments of Light

Monthly Archives: April 2015

​Sacred Space ​and the Apprehension of Meaning, Part Three


The [church] building “refers” to things beyond itself, and it deliberately intends to be a setting where spiritual knowledge receives explicit recognition and focal attention. Sometimes the meanings are highly specific and complex; for the sake of clarity they may even be explained in inscriptions. Other meanings are more general: the nave is “like a ship” (which is what “nave” means), or windows let in light (a symbol of God). But these meanings also engage in intricate play among themselves, arouse further associations, and end up offering some of the most complex meanings of all. And always—silently, intently—the building points at once both to the individual’s own inner being and to the things commonly done in the company of other people in the church: the place where “the Word” is read, for example, and the site of baptism, or Christian initiation. The altar table is usually given center stage, for at the heart of Christianity is a shared meal, together with everything meant by sharing a meal.

Contemplating all these meanings, even when you are alone in a church and there is no performance going on, is intended to help focus your mind and soul. You go into a church to exclude the extraneous, to get away from noise and distractions, to go back into yourself and take a good look at what is there. You go because you want to restore and enrich your relationship with God, by participating in a religious ceremony, by praying, or by just sitting alone in silence. All of the church’s “language” exists to help you do this, to get your mind humming and to make you receptive.

It is also supposed to help you keep in good spiritual shape. For one of the central tenets of Christianity is that belief and love and trust and insight, like mystical experience, are given to you. You can’t cause a gift such as belief or trust or love—whether felt or received—to be given, although a longing for what is called “grace” will surely be satisfied. Only, when the gift comes, you have to be ready. Longing for it is part of being ready; Christians say even that to long is already to have received.) It is entirely possible to be so distracted that you don’t notice the gift at your doorstep, or to be in such poor shape spiritually that you do not recognize or cannot accept what is being offered. God comes “like a thief in the night.” (Notice that in this biblical simile, when God “breaks in” the person is thought of as like a house, a building.) All that a human being can do is be vigilant, notice what is happening, and then respond. A church is there to remind you, to teach you to pay attention, and to awaken the poetry in your soul. It gives you exercise in responding.
—Margaret Viss​e​r, The Geometry of Love, Space,Time, Mystery and Meaning in an Ordinary Church

If the silent witness of a church building, be it the ethereal light of a gothic cathedral, the tranquil line of modernist purity, or the worn wooden steps of a Georgian meetinghouse, can awaken the poetry in our souls and focus our minds on the spiritual what can our own artistic endeavors learn from that kind of intentionality?
​Comments welcome​.